Anime Visuals Matter a Whole Lot Actually…

Your pledges help make WMC better. Please consider pledging as little as a dollar today.


As per the suggestion of my co-staffer, Jimmy Gnome, I picked up My Hero Academia, starting with the second season. I was hesitant, as I found the storytelling of the previous cour shallow, vapid, practically nonexistent at some points. Granted, there were a handful of scenes that stood out.  But these failed to enhance the experience in a meaningful way since the show was so dry overall. MHA‘s dull ‘check-box’ story was prioritized over its stylization, which is the lifeblood of all art. This is not to say that the show suffers from poor production quality, because that certainly is not the case. However, these misplaced priorities highlight just how shackled anime can be to source material.

It was my late WMC co-blogger Tamerlane who argued (and I’m paraphrasing here) that style is what makes art art. And I agree with him. Style is the difference between a textbook and prose, a mug shot and a portrait, security camera footage and a film, etc. What people find enjoyable varies from person to person, but most will agree that a careful balance of these two, style and substance, is preferable. That balance can vary from media to media. For example, more often than not we prefer documentaries and non-fiction texts to have more substance, while rarely do we expect a painting to hold that same level of factual detail. At the same time, what attracts a viewer to a painting is its style, not so much the content contained therein.

This topic is tricky, because often times media creates this dichotomy of ‘substance vs style’ where any overabundance of one leads to a lack in the other; either this piece of media is trying to be informative or artful. But why not both? Some of the best documentaries, films, books, and photographs have both substance and style. This plays back into the idea of balance; even though substance and style are exclusive, as an audience we typically want them blended into an easily digestible form. Being digestible does not necessarily mean the final product is good, but it does mean it is easy to consume which is its own credit to be sure. However, despite all of this, that final product must contain some measure of style in order to be considered artful. (Disclaimer: there are a lot of movements that debate this, but that is beyond the original scope of this article and are honestly too reductive to cover within the scope of this article.)

Many readers are aware of my stance that the visuals of a visual medium are the most essential part of said visual medium, i.e. the argument that ‘the animation is the most important part of anime’. Do not misunderstand: assuming the final product is a competent one, all aspects should integrate into a conductive whole. However, I do argue that the visuals are the heart of that stylization. Style completely changes the emotional density of the substance, and changes a premise into a story.  “Naruto is a story about a boy who becomes Hokage” is substance, but that’s not what we should be concerned with. Being outside the story itself, we know that one day Naruto will be the Hokage – that’s the very foundation of the story, and in a way that knowledge is the ultimate spoiler. Except, it turns out that we aren’t actually concerned with the end result. We want to see the events that lead up to the inevitable conclusion, to see them unfold.

Long running Shonen Jump adaptations are a great example of style over substance. During staff changes (and in attempt to stretch out the broadcast length) the same events in the story would be covered twice by different directors or animation teams (Jexhius wrote about this in Yu Yu Hakusho a while back, focusing on episodes with Akiyuki Shinbou). Dragonball has some amazing examples of this as well. Frieza is finally killed by Trunks at the end of episode 120 of Dragonball Z. At the start of episode 121, we see the exact same events unfold, but the style is lacking due to staff  changes between episodes, and thus results in an inferior version. Given the emotional complexity behind the moment, animation director Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru (episode 120) was correct in guiding the visuals in a more serious and detailed direction over Yukio Ebisawa’s (episode 121) more cartoony and more loose (and sloppy by comparison) version. The fact that Frieza dies isn’t what matters; rather, what style his death assumes–how the death happens–does the heavy emotional lifting.

Trunks Frieza death
Image credit

Think of the onslaught of light novel adaptations that we see every season, or that one ‘moe blob’ show (and yes, I hate myself for even writing that, but it illustrates my point). What differentiates them? Substance-wise, none of the fantasy worlds, high schools, tournament arcs, or period dramas are exactly the same, and yet they all feel the same. Devoid of any unique expression, they all run together like a sloppy watercolor painting. Variance of expression is what differentiates one title from another, and expression is molded by style.

Anime (animation really) has the ability to achieve aesthetics that no other medium can, and as such it demands special attention. Granted, visualization is not the sole source of stylization; sound and even the writing to some degree figures into the style of an anime. However, the audio used in animation is not unique to the medium, nor is the writing outside of social and cultural exploration unique to the authors’ culture – and even if you were to argue that it is, it still pales in comparison to the potential that the visual factor of the medium possesses. Too often in adaptations, the series gets wrapped up in covering the material’s substance instead of imposing a genuine sense of style onto it. This was my issue with the first cour of My Hero Academia.

Make no mistake, things have to happen onscreen in order for there to be anything to animate! But the focus on the actual events should be secondary. Esteemed and self-appointed anime connoisseurs would do well to adopt what has been dubbed as ‘sakuga criticism’ into their analytic tool box. At the same time ‘sakuga critics’ would be wise to view these amazing pieces of animation as style, as the presentation of underlying substance, and not as themselves pieces of substance to report on.

The argument is not visuals vs story, or even style vs substance. Art must have style independent of the substance in order to be classified as artistic, which makes style  the most vital component, but not the only necessary one. That being said, visuals are going to hold the most weight in determining the style assumed by an anime. They will naturally be the most defining when it comes to ‘how’ the events unfold and how we feel about those events. To restate the obvious, it’s not that the other aspects of anime or substance are ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ A concise way to think about it is that it cannot function without the vehicle of style. And thus, it is my belief that visuals should be placed first in the critical triage.

Your pledges help make WMC better. Please consider pledging as little as a dollar.



Add yours →

  1. thehoennhippo June 9, 2017 — 8:32 pm

    I see where you are coming from a lot better then I did reading your tweets so I’ll give you that. I also think this article gave me some things to think about. However, while I can see what you’re saying with “Art must have style independent of the substance in order to be classified as artistic” I do not agree that that means that visuals are the place where the priority in criticism should be place (which is what I think you’re trying to say?” I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of film grammar and aesthetics are lacking, so that might tie into my views. The thing is, and this is purely on an individual level, I am simply more interested in what a piece of art is saying than how its saying it. As a critic I am always focusing on the themes of the story. Perhaps I am taking the aesthetic/animation for granted, maybe I haven’t seen any incompetent enough to effect how I see it. Part of this probably comes from the fact that it is hard to know what your reaction to something would be if it had been portrayed a different way. Would episode 12 of Sound Euphonium have hit me as hard if it wasn’t as beautifully animated? Maybe, but you can only experience something for the first time once. So I’ll end this off by saying I get where you’re coming from, but personally my interests in anime lie elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading the article!
      Having other personal interests is a great thing, and I wouldn’t want to change it! The goal of the article is to kinda provide a framework for others to build off of (whether they agree or not). I know I had a few private conversations with some readers and they mentioned that it caused them to evaluate their own stances on the topic of anime criticism. I don’t want to change people’s opinion to my own, but I was trying to provide a framework for a school of thought and an opportunity for personal consideration of how we as critical viewers approach anime.
      I appreciate you leaving your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is exactly why I can’t watch the new Berserk. (I can’t.) I hear/read so often that the story makes it a worthwhile experience; I get tempted and imagine clicking on the CR link; then a new gif makes the twitter rounds and I want to gouge my f’in eyes out. It’s cool. There’s a manga.

    I tolerated Ajin but I completely understood why others found the CG style too off-putting. I didn’t understand why others described that stance as superficial. It’s *animation*. If it’s unreasonable to want to see anime with a dynamic visual style and expressive character acting what are we even doing here. A lot of dramatic beats in Ajin were undercut because the poor CGI faces had two facial expressions in their arsenal.

    The response to the great animation in MHA S2 makes me want to reconsider S1. I had the same reaction to the first episode that you seemed to have–same ol’, same ol’–but I wasn’t reading WMC and the Sakuga Blog then. I pay more attention to how things are presented now. I wondered if I would get more out of it….?


    • It could be argued that the presentation of art is part of the art, and that’s kinda the argument I was going for. As critical viewers, we have a lot to gain to stop and think, ‘How did they do that?’ and then look into it. The reportage and valuable insight of how is a wonderful tool into figuring out how emotions are communicated on screen. Because once we know how emotion can be communicated effectively we can then be better judges of the media we consume.

      Really, I think all art boils down to emotion. What feelings and sentiments did I receive from this art? What thoughts did I have? And the thing is (and maybe this is 100% personal) substance isn’t what moves people, stylization is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree that emotion is, majority-wise (pure speculation), probably the most “important” aspect in anime and other forms of entertainment (barring video games, unless you consider ‘having fun’ something akin to an emotional response – they don’t need to, but it’s can be a treat when they do it well). Which is why I’m a bit confused you think that way, yet also prioritize style as the most important aspect? Correct me if I’m wrong there, but I believe the two to be separate components, no matter how intertwined they can get.

        I’m an appreciator of all three personally: style, substance, and emotion. But I feel that most people don’t think that much about these sort of things, and emotion is at the heart the most basic and core aspect for anime and other similar forms of entertainment to have. Narrative and characters are things I value highly myself. And while I personally may not consider emotion the most important aspect for me, I do believe it is for most people who engage with any form of storytelling.

        Interesting to think about though. Glad you decided to build a framework for discussion to arise here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • There are a lot of factors that go into the the communication of an emotion, but my argument is that the style dictates first and foremost what the emotional response will be in regard to the events on screen. The same events will occur on screen in a thousand different ways. however, the style they assume will be the key factor in the emotional response of the viewer. At least that’s my belief.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As much as I’d love to agree with that, I’ve witnessed enough times audiences get emotional at what seemed to me as overly familiar, run-of-the-mill kind of stuff, and even something like BvS had people behind my crying.

        Style can enhance it, but emotional responses will happen regardless it seems. Though I do believe style is important too, and maybe we have different ideas of what that is, and why this (dis)agreement feels a bit awkward, I’m trying to think outside of me, knowing a lot of people that don’t care about that sort of thing and get emotional really easily at scenes.

        Perhaps its the communications of ideas as well as emotions on any level that connects with audiences. Style or no, substance or no. Emotion seems to be felt or interpreted more than anything, whether it’s intentional or purely on the part of the viewer. That’s my (long) two cents on the matter for now. Not speaking with any certainty or arrogance here, just noting what I’ve observed thus far.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It says a lot about the state of the anime community in the West that even seemingly “elite” sites like this have the same clueless groupthink whining about light novel and “moe blob” anime (that they’ve never actually watched) that you’ll find anywhere on MAL, Reddit, Youtube and 4chan.


    • Wow, that’s a pretty loaded comment there…
      I wrote this article in response to other critics’ videos, essays, and twitter conversations on the very topic who all had a different view of the importance of visuals in a visual medium, so it’s far from groupthink (and even further from whining since the nitpick you have is 10 words out of the 1000 – hardly representative of the article).

      Thanks for taking the time to read.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a mighty sweeping generalization you’ve made about the nine folks who write for this website based on a viewpoint expressed by a single author. I’d encourage you to go back and take a look at our individual Anime of the Year picks for 2016, and you’ll find a great variety of titles, including light novel adaptations and shows with moe elements.

      Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: